The government should be worrying about whether roads and public spaces provide safe access

As more Indians become senior citizens, just how friendly do they find their cities?

The 2001 census said a significant 13.5 per cent of the population was in the 45-64 age group. Millions of these people are now in the seventh decade of their lives, and experiencing the painful mobility difficulties that accompany old age.

Do roads and public spaces provide safe access? That is something governments should be worrying about, but the evidence on the ground indicates they do not. A vital area of urban development — walkability — gets little help from the corridors of power.

NGOs are trying to fill the massive void in data and analyses. Transparent Chennai is organising ‘walkability surveys’ in some parts of the city, calling upon volunteers to join the data collection drive. The latest area that it has taken up is Nanganallur. Such data is expected to help our civic agencies improve safety, and remove obstacles to pedestrian movement.

At the heart of the issue is the basic standard of service that pedestrians should be getting. The national gold standard, at least in books, comes from the Indian Roads Congress (IRC). If civic governments and political leaders were to be judged against these IRC standards however, they would only qualify for the hall of shame.

Of the six levels of pedestrian service, urban spaces in Chennai and most Indian cities would invariably rate the worst: an F. Here’s what the F service standard says: All walking speeds are severely restricted, and forward progress is made only by shuffling. There is frequent, unavoidable contact with other pedestrians. Cross and reverse-flow movements are virtually impossible. Flow is sporadic and unstable.

The footpaths would get another F on the very first parameter: the need to have an even surface without cracks or bumps for comfortable walking.

To avoid taking strong action on walkability, many civic officials resort to the subterfuge of pitching a zero-sum game for hawkers — if pedestrian facilities are strengthened, livelihoods would be lost. This is a travesty. If pedestrians and hawkers can co-exist, and both objectives are met without conflict, it works to mutual advantage.

The only problem is that the officials collecting petty bribes from unlicensed hawkers would then be forced to issue licences and the rent opportunity would disappear.

There are other ways of assessing walkability — by using all pedestrians as volunteers. If a mobile phone application could be written with a choice of road name, Chennai Corporation division and ratings of a. good, b. acceptable c. obstructed and d. unusable, it would generate a database of the entire city that could mapped. Even a plain SMS-based system with the same details could achieve the objective.

Unfortunately, those in charge of our cities are wary of generating data that will pinpoint their many weak spots. Equally, NGOs cannot match the scale of the government and must confine themselves to pilot studies and small interventions.

If there is a citizen effort to give an annual prize to the ‘worst-maintained road’ and invitations are duly sent out to the Mayor (or municipality chairman), councillor and engineers of the civic body to receive it in the media spotlight, the outcomes would improve, for senior citizens – and for everyone else.

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